Soundbars were born out of necessity. HDTVs got thinner, and quality built-in speakers were sacrificed as a result. A full home theater, with an audio-video receiver and separate speakers, provided the only option for sound that matched the quality of the picture. Unfortunately, home theater systems take up a lot of space and clutter up your house with a lot of unsightly, hard-to-keep-track-of wires.
The soundbar solved that problem by integrating multiple speakers – and the electronics to process surround sound – into one unit. While early soundbars opted for convenience over quality, the latest units wrap both qualities together in simple bundles.
Even within similar looking soundbars, a wide range of options exists. The best for you depends on what you value most: quality, convenience, or price – or, more likely, some combination of the three.
Vizio 5.1 Home Theater Sound Bar
If you want true surround sound but don't want to mess with a receiver in addition to 5.1 speakers, Vizio has you covered. It created a soundbar system that reproduces Dolby Digital as it is intended – and at a reasonable price, too.
The Vizio 5.1 Home Theater Sound Bar packs the center, right, and left channels into the single bar that goes with the HDTV and adds two surround channels and a wireless subwoofer (the ".1" in the system) to the mix. The surround speakers connect with wires to the subwoofer.
The reward comes in the details of sound. Voices have more resonance and you'll feel special effects more. It won't match a decent home theater system with a separate receiver and speakers, but the trade-offs are acceptable considering this package only costs $330.
Vizio's 5.1 soundbar includes four inputs to accommodate multiple devices: one optical digital audio, one coaxial digital audio input, an analog RCA (two-channel) input, and a 3.5 mm stereo mini jack. It also comes with a USB port for WAV audio files. Even better, the soundbar has Bluetooth, so you can stream audio from your smartphone or tablet. At $330, you get more features and speakers than most similarly priced 2.0 soundbar systems offer. [$330; vizio.com]